In previous posts (here, here, and here), I've looked at three important questions that we must answer if we are to assess how well the U.S. is doing in its war on al Qaeda: defining al Qaeda, naming the group's objectives, and then examining how well it is doing at achieving its goals. I've suggested that the U.S. comes to quite different conclusions than al Qaeda itself on all three of these issues. According to a majority of experts -- both within and outside government -- al Qaeda is primarily the small "core" located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan; the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns. The objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies and, because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11. If this version of the conflict is true, we have nearly won, and only need to kill or capture a few more members of the core before it disintegrates completely.
Al Qaeda's leadership, on the other hand, considers itself to be much more than just a core of terrorists, but rather the "high command" of a global organization. In their view, the affiliates (or branches), as well as many fighters in Afghanistan-Pakistan, are integral members of al Qaeda. They have publicly described expansive objectives that include overthrowing the rulers of every Muslim-majority country (whether part of an earlier Islamic state or not), imposing their version of sharia, and then setting up "amirates," or Islamic states in these countries. Al Qaeda believes that they have achieved many of these goals already and are pressing forward to seize more territory and set up new shadow governments.
So how do we reconcile these very different versions of the war and determine where we are at in this conflict? I believe that the most important question we can ask ourselves is this: Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer "no." Unlike before 9-11, when al Qaeda and terrorists trained by the group were able to carry out devastating attacks against the U.S. and its interests in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, the period since 9-11 has been marked by one CT triumph after another. The planned follow-up attacks (the so-called "second wave") were foiled or failed to materialize and other serious plots have been stopped on a regular basis. The only large-scale attacks that succeeded were abroad (Bali (2002), Spain (2004), London (2005) -- no other major attempts since 2005 have made it past the CT nets of the U.S. and our allies.
We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda's global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda's version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved -- sometimes weakly, at other times in strength -- in every Muslim-majority country in the world.
Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history. And if, as al Qaeda itself has always argued, attacking the U.S. was just one means toward the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory, then they have made real progress toward achieving their strategic goals. This judgment is not just an esoteric statement about theory, but also has important policy implications: If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?
This piece was crossposted from the Afpak Channel.
In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015. There is little prospect that either election will be adequately funded or competently administered. But even if, by some miracle, they come off without a hitch, they will only serve to entrench the corrupt, over-centralized administration in Kabul, and do little to improve governance in the localities. Holding elections in Afghanistan in the midst of its long-running political crisis is a lose-lose situation.
The United States and United Nations should work with the Afghans instead to push for a grand political bargain that could actually make a difference in the counterinsurgency against the Taliban: a new Loya Jirga to amend the constitution, devolve power, adjust the electoral calendar, change the voting system, and invite the Taliban to form a political party. Neither Kabul nor the international community stands to gain from holding another round of elections, but a new political bargain can break the paralysis in Kabul and break the logjam in talks with the Taliban.
I. Devolve Power
Afghanistan's slow-burning political crisis began in 2003, when a Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in December to ratify a new constitution. The new document was modeled closely on the 1964 constitution, itself following closely in the footsteps of constitutions in 1923 and the 1890s. That a new democratic constitution was modeled on the older constitutional monarchy is telling: The new system simply replaced the hereditary Afghan monarch with an elected President and retained on paper many of the centralized powers that the Afghan kings had claimed (though not always exercised) since the late 19th Century. The new constitution was unanimously ratified by acclamation in January 2004.
The United States and the U.N. are often blamed for creating or forcing a centralized system onto the Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The accusation is wrong -- the centralized system came from the Afghans themselves, stemming from the century-old practice of Afghan rulers, and readily accepted by the Loya Jirga. But the point remains true that Afghanistan has one of the most highly centralized systems of government in the world. Provincial governments are not independent governments, like U.S. states, but implementing agencies of Kabul. Provincial councils are advisory, not legislative, bodies. Provincial governors and district chiefs are appointed by the president, not elected by the people. Provincial and district police chiefs are also appointed by the president, not by governors. That makes the president personally responsible for hiring and firing every governor and police chief in 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts nation-wide.
The centralization is almost completely unsuitable to Afghanistan's culture, economy, and society. According to Thomas Barfield's magisterial book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (arguably the most intelligent thing written on Afghanistan in a decade), the Afghan government has always claimed centralized powers, but has been most successful when it exercises those powers sparingly, or in cooperation with local elites like tribal elders and landowners. Efforts to use centralized government to compel social change tended to provoke resistance, as it did under the reign of the modernizing king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who was overthrown by a coalition of rural tribes and conservative mullahs; the communizing efforts of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1989); and the Islamizing efforts to the Taliban (1994-2001), the two most recent of which sparked civil war.
Despite the potential lessons of that history, the ten-year reign of Hamid Karzai looks more like Amanullah in his efforts to centralize power and push social reform, than that of Zahir Shah (1933-73), who took a more relaxed approach to the provinces and whose rule was marked by relative stability. Devolving power, for example by making governors elected and giving them the power of appointments in their province, giving provincial councils legislative power, and enabling provinces to levy their own taxes would bring the formal government into closer alignment with the informal practices that worked in the past.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Looking at the various "Arab Spring" movements, I am struck by how events in each country have influenced other countries and shaped the broader revolution. The very fact that it is known as the "Arab Spring," (or "Arab Uprising," or any number of other variations) emphasizes its transnational character. This might even be expanded further beyond the "Arab" dimension, if we consider the 2009 Green Movement in Iran as one of the catalysts, or the recent protests against recrudescent Putinism in Russia as one of the fruits. Yet for all the transnational characteristics of this movement as a mass uprising against autocracy and repression, it is also a series of unique national movements with particular characteristics and diverse outcomes. These differences are evident in Tunisia's cautious progress, Egypt's imperiled transition, Libya's post-conflict fragility, and the crucible that is Syria, just to cite a few.
In each of these countries the uprisings have been comprised of motley crews and mixed motives, ranging from peaceful and democratic reformers who seek genuine freedom for themselves and their fellow citizens, to militants and Islamists whose purposes are more suspect. Even as the democratic reformers work to advance a positive vision grounded in human dignity and liberty, their efforts risk being eclipsed by non-democratic elements, and their stories risk being forgotten.
Here an important new resource has just been launched that will highlight the work and lives of these reformers, not only in the Middle East but from every continent: the Freedom Collection of the George W. Bush Institute. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check out the Freedom Collection website.
The Freedom Collection preserves the stories of activists in repressive countries who have devoted their lives to the cause of liberty. Using a combination of video and oral interviews and a unique documentary archive, it features profiles of dissidents and reformers from every continent, of diverse faiths and backgrounds, and a common commitment to advancing human rights and democracy. Their backgrounds are remarkably diverse, and include well-known figures such as Vaclav Havel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Dalai Lama, to others whose stories deserve to be highlighted, such as Chinese house church leader Bob Fu, Venezuelan democracy activist Cristal Montanez Baylor, and Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. These leaders represent the very incarnation of courage, and yet "courageous" seems almost trite and insufficient to describe the suffering that many of them have endured, and why they have endured it.
The Freedom Collection communicates to reformers and dissidents around the world that they are not alone, that while the path they walk may seem isolated and perilous, their efforts are remembered. And not just remembered, but can serve as both inspiration and practical tool for other would-be reformers in other repressive countries.
It will also be a resource for scholars, who seek to understand better what drives such movements, and in particular what motivates the people who led such movements. In a way the Freedom Collection will also offer a contribution to the perennial debate over what drives change, human agency or structural forces. While both play a role, the Freedom Collection highlights the personal dimension of human agency -- the unique attributes of intrepid individuals who resist cultural and governance barriers in their efforts to promote better lives for themselves and their nations. Finally, I hope the Freedom Collection can put a human face on what are sometimes needlessly partisan debates over the question of democracy promotion in foreign policy. While the policy questions are manifestly complex, that complexity should not obscure the individual lives that are at the center of these questions, and whose voices should also be heard at the policy table.
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Among the Iraq-related anniversaries to consider, here's one more: Twenty-one years ago this week, millions of Iraqi Kurds set flight for the desolate, snow-capped mountains bordering Turkey and Iran, frantically seeking to escape the advancing armies of Saddam Hussein. Fresh off his humiliating defeat in the first Gulf War, Saddam had quickly trained his guns on wiping out all internal opposition to his tyrannical rule.
Where the Kurds were concerned, his purpose seemed clear. Saddam aimed to eliminate once and for all the persistent challenge this proud, irrepressible minority had long posed to his dictatorship. Genocide was on tap, the completion of a job begun in 1988, when Iraqi forces razed thousands of Kurdish villages, murdered their inhabitants, and rained chemical weapons down on the innocent men, women and children of a town called Halabja.
Now, with their backs literally to the wall, freezing to death on a barren mountainside, facing Saddam's full vengeance, the Kurds' destruction seemed nigh.
Until, that is: America. Said. No. Working with a small group of allies, the United States, quite simply, saved the Kurds. Saddam's army was ordered to stand down or face renewed hostilities. U.S. ground forces deployed to northern Iraq and organized one of history's greatest humanitarian rescues, Operation Provide Comfort. A no-fly zone was established over Kurdistan, which U.S. aircraft patrolled until 2003, when America finally settled its score with Saddam for good, liberating almost 30 million people from his republic of fear, including the long-suffering Kurds.
It's a story of deliverance and American leadership well worth recalling, especially this year. For the first time in a generation, Iraq's Kurds find themselves without direct American protection. President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq has once again left the Kurds largely alone. While no longer confronting Saddam's terror, the long shadow of their anguished history remains, as do unresolved tensions not only with Iraq's majority Arabs, but with powerful neighbors in Iran, Syria and Turkey struggling with disadvantaged Kurdish minorities of their own.
It's a mix of fear, loathing and foreign meddling that, left untended, could easily lead to conflict and even war -- both inside Iraq and, perhaps, regionally. That, indeed, would be tragic -- for the often-betrayed Kurds, to be sure, but also for the prestige and long-term interests of their main benefactor, the United States.
Say what you will about the American project in Iraq, its application in Kurdistan was well down the path toward success. As happened in Germany, Japan and South Korea after World War II, a few decades of intense American engagement had begun working wonders for the Kurds. Excellent security -- indeed, not a single U.S. combat death in areas under Kurdish control. A booming economy with growing levels of foreign investment. And an emerging democracy that, while far from perfect, has seen real opposition parties emerge, as well as a burgeoning civil society and media. Yes, corruption, lack of accountability, and uneven development remain serious problems. But certainly no worse than, say, South Korea circa the 1970s, at a similar point in that country's experience under America's wing.
Properly nourished, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a U.S. strategic asset. Iraq's Arabs may have been profoundly ambivalent about a continued role for American troops. But not the Kurds, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their desire for a permanent U.S. presence, and whose population of some 5 million is overwhelmingly pro-American. Sharing borders with Iran and Syria, Kurdistan could play a vital role in U.S. strategy to combat the serious threats now emanating from those anti-American regimes. Kurdish security and intelligence forces are competent and battle-hardened, and after years of cooperation have built up excellent working relations with their U.S. counterparts, including in fighting Al Qaeda. And sitting atop 40-50 billion barrels of oil, Kurdistan is poised to become one of the world's largest petroleum producers, a major contributor to global energy security.
Confident in its U.S. backing, Kurdistan could serve as both engine and anchor for the rest of Iraq's democratic development. But America's precipitous retreat has left behind a dangerous vacuum, a potential breeding ground for destructive acts of self-help that could easily spiral out of control That vacuum urgently needs to be filled by a concerted American strategy to define a new, "special" relationship with Iraq's Kurds. Making clear that Kurdistan's well-being within a truly federal Iraq is a high U.S. priority could serve both to deter potential aggressors while encouraging Kurdish restraint, patience and cooperation in dealing with the turmoil of Baghdad's day-to-day politics.
When Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visits Washington next month, the Obama administration would be well advised to use the opportunity to establish a new Joint Commission on U.S.-Kurdish relations to oversee the bilateral relationship, composed of high-level officials from both sides. America's consulate in Kurdistan should be led by a senior foreign service officer of ambassadorial rank, perhaps seconded by a retired general. Under the rubric of U.S. security assistance for Iraq, programs for equipping and training Kurdish security and intelligence services should be established, including robust channels for information sharing and other cooperative efforts. A joint initiative to expand dramatically American investment in Kurdistan needs to be launched, with a focus on expediting the region's emergence as a reliable energy exporter to Western markets. Technical assistance should be provided to support Kurdish efforts to battle corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and ensure human rights.
More than two decades after saving Iraq's Kurds from annihilation, it's time for America to institutionalize a long-term strategic relationship with them -- one that understands that a secure and prosperous Kurdistan, confident in its ties to the world's sole superpower, can be a boon to U.S. interests, and a force for stability and modernism throughout Iraq and the broader Middle East.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
My last post argued that determining al Qaeda's objectives is vital for any evaluation of the group's progress. I suggested that the U.S. government believes that the main goal of al Qaeda is attacking the United States and its allies, but that this is to confuse means with ends. The stated objectives of the group are to liberate all Muslim-majority countries of non-Muslim occupiers and their apostate rulers, impose their version of sharia in these places, create an Islamic state then that they call the "caliphate," and eventually force all human beings to follow their version of Islamic law. By carrying out attacks on the U.S. -- and other means -- al Qaeda believes that it can achieve these greater ends.
The confusion of means with ends has many consequences, but one of the most vital is that it makes it extremely difficult to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda.
If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure: It has not carried out a successful homeland attack since 9-11 and has been incapable of a mass attack on our allies since the London bombings of 2005. The group must be far weaker than anyone thought in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, less capable of projecting power, and therefore less of a threat to the United States than once feared. The death of Osama bin Laden might even mean that the group is finished -- a spent force that can be safely relegated to some second-tier category while the U.S. concentrates on more dangerous enemies (like China).
But if its main objectives are those outlined above, then measuring the successes and failures of al Qaeda is more complex than the number of attacks on the U.S. it has carried out and the casualties of Americans and our friends it has caused. To assess al Qaeda's strengths, we would need to look at where the group claims that it is active worldwide and see how much progress it has made in achieving its goals. Since they will only begin to force all other people to follow their version of shari'a after achieving the first three goals, I won't attempt to assess their progress on this front.
Instead, let's begin by examining al-Qaeda's objective of expelling non-Muslim occupiers and apostate rulers from Muslim lands. Since 9-11, American military forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and soon will leave Afghanistan. Multiple NATO forces have also decided to leave Afghanistan and many countries left Iraq before the defeat of the insurgency. We would say -- and rightly so -- that the reasons for pulling out of these areas have little to do with al Qaeda's actions. The U.S. in fact left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan because it believes that al Qaeda has been defeated in both countries, and was able to move forces out of Saudi Arabia because Saddam was no longer around to threaten U.S. interests. With our allies the situation is rather different: It was the stubborn refusal of the insurgents (whether members of al-Qaeda or not) to quit fighting that caused many of them to decide to leave first Iraq (see Spain) and then Afghanistan. But, despite the real reasons for the withdrawal of American and allied forces from Muslim lands, Zawahiri and other leaders of al Qaeda have been able to claim credit for pushing them out of these countries, and for achieving one of their most important objectives.
The same holds true for the ouster of "apostate" rulers like Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Ali Saleh (see Abdullah, "Disobeying Ali Abdullah Saleh Is the Most Important Duty That Was Called For by the Good Predecessors," Sada al-Malahim, Issue 3, May 2008) -- all named by the group as deserving to be pushed from power and/or executed. The Arab Spring in particular was a force completely outside al-Qaeda's power to begin or control, but this has not stopped its leaders from pointing out that the downfall of these "tyrants" fulfills one of their objectives. From the start of the spring, then, the group could position itself as supporting the uprisings and has sympathizers in Libya and Egypt, and outright members in Yemen, that are in position to take advantage of the social and political foment that has naturally occurred in these countries.
The bottom line is this: regardless of the agency of al Qaeda in these events, the actions by the U.S., its allies, and the people of these Muslim-majority countries have fulfilled two major objectives that al Qaeda has consistently claimed that they are pursuing. And, because of its consistency in calling for the ouster of these rulers, the group is now in an excellent position to build support in all the countries touched by the uprisings.
Al Qaeda has had more direct involvement in achieving its third objective-creating the "caliphate" -- although apparently with less success. The graphic below shows the governance areas for the caliphate that al Qaeda has claimed it is in the process of creating through the jihads of its branches. The exact boundaries of these areas are open to discussion, but the names and general territories are as described by al Qaeda.
In at least five of these areas -- the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, al Qaeda has claimed to have established amirates, their name for the shadow governments that are supposed to expand their authority until it encompasses the entire governance area. I believe that, eventually, al Qaeda wants to make these areas into wilayat or provinces within the larger caliphate.
All these attempts to set up governance have had some success: al Qaeda's branches did not just announce the establishment of a state in each place, but have also been imposing their version of Islamic law by setting up a court system to establish legal penalties and settle cases, along with an institution traditionally called the "hisba" to enforce the law. They have also created a regular army, charged taxes, collected Islamic charity (traditionally the provenance of the state), and much else. Al Qaeda 's attempts at shadow governance have not been uncontested, however. In almost all these cases, the new amirates are under pressure from central governments and external forces (like the Kenyans in Somalia), and in one case, Iraq, lost nearly everything when the U.S. carried out a successful counter-insurgency in 2007-2008. Yet the new governance structures have proven to be resilient, and even in Iraq are making a comeback that show the depth of their influence. In Yemen, where the central government is weak and there are no strong neighbors to intervene, the situation is particularly dire, and al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the chaos from the Arab Spring to spread its control across large portions of the country.
Any evaluation of al Qaeda's progress in achieving this objective would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped.
In my next post I'll look at how well the U.S. (and other countries) have done in countering al Qaeda, and give my net assessment of where we are at in our war with the group.
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It's a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn't make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here's the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran's influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran's main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that's a sufficiently vital interest; I'll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let's return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama's decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama's defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration confronts a particularly daunting set of challenges in what might be called the "greater Persian Gulf" or "north Middle East region": Iran, Iraq, and Syria. There is a special urgency to the Iranian nuclear challenge, the unraveling of Iraqi security and therefore Iraqi politics, and the growing civil war in Syria. These problems irresistibly draw the administration's strategic attention back to a region the president quite clearly would prefer to pivot away from.
Each of the challenges has its own complicated history, but in policy terms there is a common challenge for the United States: how to maximize our leverage so as to influence the development of the situation in a direction more conducive to U.S. interests. Even with maximum leverage, we are not in a position to dictate events exactly to our liking -- perhaps our capacity to influence is limited even under optimal conditions. Yet, it is also likely that with more leverage we have a better chance of shaping events, whereas with less leverage we are more likely to be hostage to the agendas of others.
So the question suggests itself: What might increase our strategic leverage in the region beyond its current level? I can think of one: If the United States had a sizable residual force in the region for the purposes of strategic overwatch, it seems to me our leverage over each of these challenges would be greater.
With a residual strategic overwatch force, we could:
Such a residual strategic overwatch force was always part of the plan, as Tom Ricks recently reminded us. No, the plan was not for "permanent bases" -- a partisan bogeyman well-tailored to clouding strategic thinking -- but rather to a longer term presence dictated by conditions on the ground rather than by the American electoral calendar. The Obama administration, to their credit, tried to implement that plan but ultimately failed and then tried to spin their failure as a great success.
That spin makes me curious: wouldn't conditions on the ground seem to dictate the desirability of such a strategic overwatch force? Of course, there are also downsides that would weigh in the balance: the financial costs of the deployment; the vulnerability to a Khobar-style terror attack; the possibility that the deployment would fuel local resentments; etc. Moreover, as Obama spinners are quick to point out, much of the blame for the failure to achieve a stay-behind agreement belongs on the Iraqi shoulders. Perhaps the downsides outweigh the upsides, but if so, it is a far closer call than the administration would like to admit.
Voters are going to hear a lot about how President Obama kept his promise to "end" the Iraq war and bring all of the troops home. Then he may go on to describe how he is addressing other key challenges in the region. What he likely won't say is that the way he ended the Iraq war has weakened his hand for all of these other problems.
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Amidst the growing tensions and limited policy options over Iran's nuclear program, there has at least been a perceptible improvement in the framing of the public debate, specifically over the use of the term "diplomacy." Here some background is important. During the Bush administration's second term, as the White House led an effort to increase the multilateral economic sanctions regime on Iran and offered the "freeze for freeze" proposal that Mike Singh describes below, critics sometimes accused the Bush administration of pursuing "sanctions instead of diplomacy." Not so, we often protested, because we viewed sanctions as an integral component of diplomacy. Indeed, we believed diplomacy to include the full range of non-kinetic measures in the toolkit, including bilateral and multilateral talks, economic rewards and punishments, resolutions from multilateral fora, and even the possible threat of force - sometimes used in concert with each other for a full spectrum of "diplomacy." More important, we believed that economic sanctions (both potential and actual) helped strengthen our leverage for potential talks, as they demonstrated our diplomatic seriousness and also provided an additional bargaining chip. Thus the charge that sanctions somehow represented a contrast to diplomacy sounded myopic and muddle-headed. The critics' real gripe seemed to reflect their preference at the time for unconditional bilateral talks with Tehran, a wish echoed by then-presidential candidate Obama in the 2008 campaign.
Fast forward to today, as the Obama administration finds itself in the crucible over how to address Iran's nuclear program. As difficult as the policy options may be, at least the terms of the public debate are more accurate. The choices now are often posed as "diplomacy" versus military strikes -- and diplomacy is rightly understood to include the robust sanctions regime currently in place. In their admirable efforts to craft and implement this sanctions regime, the Obama administration has also been operating with a proper definition of diplomacy that includes the economic sanctions, rather than somehow being an alternative to sanctions. Yet worries endure about lapsing into the old false dichotomy, reinforced yesterday by a bipartisan group of Senators.
While diplomacy is being used more accurately today, the Obama administration still occasionally confuses the terms in another way that undermines the diplomatic agenda. By repeatedly asserting that Israel should not attack Iran, and by occasionally contradicting and stepping on its own "all options are on the table" message, the White House undercuts its own diplomacy and ironically makes the possibility of a military strike by Israel or even the U.S. more likely. Why? Because in signaling that the U.S. opposes a military strike, the U.S. erodes the bite of its own sanctions and indicates to Tehran that the current measures are the most severe that the Iranian regime will have to endure. Whereas diplomatic signaling should include a consistent and credible "all options are on the table for both the U.S. and Israel" message that persuades Tehran to believe that a military strike is at least possible. This will make Iran more likely to calculate that things could actually get worse than the present straits and decide that striking a diplomatic bargain to curtail its nuclear program is the best option.
Diplomacy is not mere talking -- it is rather the full range of signaling measures, including sanctions, the threat of force, and yes public and private talking -- that a state can employ to achieve its ends. As former career diplomat (and my grad school instructor) Charlie Hill has written, "diplomacy and power are indispensable and must be used, for best effect, in tandem." In other words, diplomacy without power is mere words. Whereas the context for effective diplomacy provides the meaning behind the words used -- the presence of coercive measures such as sanctions, the possibility of positive inducements, the credibility and authority of the person delivering the words, and the possibility and capability of the use of force.
Even if the Iran crisis does lead to the use of force in some capacity, this will not necessarily mean that diplomacy has been abandoned but rather that diplomacy is entering a critical new phase. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's comments this morning reflect this muddle. On the one hand, she rightly does not rule out the use of force, and she appropriately links negotiations with the sanctions pressure in the diplomatic track. On the other hand, she says that a possible military strike is "not going to end the program." This wording mistakenly de-links the possible use of force from the political goal of ending the Iranian nuclear program. When in fact no one can really know what the political effects of military action might be -- would it increase Tehran's resolve to renew its program, or would it perhaps persuade the regime to give up its nuclear program due to the escalated costs? Here the potential use of force should be integrated as much as possible with the political goals that the Obama administration is trying to achieve -- such as persuading Iran to end its nuclear weapons program, persuading other nations to maintain Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation if it does not, and perhaps even further eroding the support of the Iranian people for their miserable government.
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In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I'll look at the second issue -- the problem of al Qaeda's objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group's strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government -- including both the Bush and Obama administrations -- has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).
There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda's political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda's goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."
A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda's leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God's word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.
It is significant that al Qaeda's lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda's effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy's means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda's main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.
In my next post, I'll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.
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Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.
It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?
The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.
Let's start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration's answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" -- individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."
This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda's leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."
Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.
It's now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper's statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy -- although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone -- would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.
Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda's objectives and the group's ability to achieve these objectives.
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In a recent FP article, Francis Gavin and James Steinberg observed that historical analogies can prove an unreliable guide to present-day policy decisions, specifically with regard to the momentous decision facing the United States and its allies regarding whether to strike Iran. As if to prove Gavin and Steinberg's point, Fareed Zakaria seeks in a Washington Post column to marshal two historical analogies in defense of his view that Israel should not attack Iran, but rather should seek to "contain" a nuclear-armed Iran if necessary. In doing so, Zakaria provides little insight into the difficult decisions facing Israeli or American leaders, but instead provides an instructive example of the fallacies that Gavin and Steinberg warn against.
Zakaria's first error is to cherry-pick historical analogies which fit what is presumably a preconceived conclusion -- that attacking Iran would be a strategic error. To support his view, he cites Germany's ill-fated decision to invade France in 1914, and the United States' decision not to attack the USSR in the late 1940s.
There are two problems with this sort of cherry-picking. First, Zakaria chooses only those historical cases which support the case for non-intervention, and ignores other possible analogies which might undermine his view. Just as critics of a strike like Zakaria could point to the cases he mentions or others to demonstrate how an attack could fail or non-intervention could succeed, advocates of a strike can cite the failure to confront mounting German militarism in the 1930s to highlight the risks of passivity, or cases of successful military interventions to illustrate the benefits of action.
Second, as with most broad historical analogies, both of the events cited by Zakaria are problematic as comparisons to the current tensions between Israel and Iran. Indeed, they must be shoe-horned into service to Zakaria's thesis. For example, Zakaria focuses on one factor which contributed to the outbreak of World War I -- German concerns about Russian armaments and mobilization capacity -- and excludes the many other circumstances which precipitated that conflict. And in citing the success of the decision to maintain a policy of "containment" (which was adopted prior to Moscow's development of nuclear weapons) toward the USSR rather than go to war, he fails to mention that this success came at considerable cost -- the domination of Eastern Europe for decades by the Soviets, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and several major and countless minor wars.
Zakaria's second error is to commit, as many who employ analogies do, the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- that is, to assume that because an outcome followed a decision, it was caused by that decision. It is difficult to know even in retrospect whether the course of events depended on a particular decision or were in fact independent of it. Historians may wonder whether any decision by the major powers in the summer of 1914 could have averted a war in Europe, just as present-day policymakers are concerned that the Middle East will be more conflict-prone in the future regardless of Israel's decision regarding Iran.
Also problematic is the question of counterfactuals -- that is, whether different decisions would have produced outcomes better or worse than those which actually occurred. Historians argue vehemently over such issues, whereas partisan policy analysts have the cynical tendency to argue that anything that went well did so because of decisions their party or leader made, and that things that went poorly were either fated to do so or were someone else's fault. In reality, policymaking is a world of maddening ambiguity, in which not only outcomes but even facts tend to be uncertain.
Policymakers can -- indeed, must -- learn from history, but not by employing facile analogies in the service of preordained conclusions. History can help us understand problems and put them in their proper context; it can offer up novel solutions or shed new light on a dilemma; and it can warn us of the pitfalls that attend any decision and perhaps teach us how to avoid them. Learning from history is a tricky business -- in studying history, a policymaker must take lessons from one context and determine how and whether they apply to a different situation and a different era. Not only do different historical cases frequently suggest contradictory conclusions, but even individual cases -- for example U.S. arming of Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s or the U.S. rapprochement with Muammar Qaddafi in the 2000s -- can offer multiple lessons which pull one in different directions.
As Gavin and Steinberg assert, in the end history cannot tell us what to do. Resolving thorny policy problems requires not just historical analysis, but also regional and strategic expertise, personal experience, and sound judgment. But above all, it requires the courage and conviction to choose, amid great uncertainty, among risky options. This is the essence of policymaking.
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Dennis Ross has made an interesting appeal for talks with Iran. He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran's cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain. Since there is evidence that the Iranians are experiencing the kind of pain the strategy called for, Ross says it is worth testing whether this has adjusted Iran's cost-benefit calculation enough to make a deal possible.
Ross is clear-eyed about the modest prospects for success. Given the costs of the alternatives, I find Ross pretty compelling. But he buries the weak link in the strategy inside these two sentences: "Of course, Iran's government might try to draw out talks while pursuing their nuclear program. But if that is their strategy, they will face even more onerous pressures, when a planned European boycott of their oil begins on July 1."
As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face. It involves offering negotiations, but then insisting that the sanctions be lifted as a show of good faith or as a way of creating conducive conditions for fruitful talks or simply as a precondition for getting the Iranians to the table. The Iranians have been fairly adept at making it look like it was Western pressure that was hobbling diplomacy, thus creating pressure on our side to ease the sanctions. Even when the United States has stood firm, sometimes our allies and partners have wobbled. By and large, the Iranians have been more effective at using the prospects of negotiations to improve their chances of wiggling out of sanctions than our side has been at using the sanctions to improve the prospects for negotiations. And while the dynamic plays itself out, Iran has kept marching toward the nuclear threshold.
So I would endorse Ross's call for yet another round of negotiations, but only with certain provisos which are prerequisites for the strategy to succeed:
A friend closer to the action than I am tells me it is "inconceivable" that a new diplomatic push would not undermine sanctions pressure. If he is right, it is also nearly inconceivable that diplomacy would work. But, as they say in the business, this is an empirical question. We can find out.
If the Obama team can pull off this delicate diplomatic maneuver -- negotiating with Iran without simultaneously undermining our negotiating leverage over Iran -- that would be quite an accomplishment. Even then, it might not be enough to secure a deal. And it still leaves an exceptionally complex part of the problem underdeveloped, for I have buried another weak link of this strategy in my description of the deal: "…will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
But, as Ross suggests, it is the only way diplomacy stands a chance of succeeding. And this part will be fairly easy to monitor. If we ease up our pressure while negotiating, we will know that the negotiations are probably doomed.
People who believe negotiations will fail and believe that the military option is the only remaining recourse should not oppose one last diplomatic push. The political predicate for the military option is a consensus that all reasonable nonmilitary options have been tried and found wanting. It is unlikely President Obama would believe that predicate was met without another test of the diplomatic waters.
There is yet one other weak link in the strategy. If there is a genuine window of opportunity after which the military option is pointless -- as claimed by the Israelis in the "zone of immunity" -- and if negotiations are strung out beyond the closing of that window, that would dramatically increase the costs of pursuing another round of diplomacy. I do not know enough about the operational details to adjudicate this. Perhaps no one, not even the Israelis and the Iranians themselves, know for sure. But if I am right about the political predicate for military action, then the hawks should be the ones pushing most urgently for diplomacy, albeit on a very short deadline.
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First, he objects to my observation that Republicans need not fear crediting Obama when it is due because his foreign policy successes have mostly come from following Republican (specifically his predecessor's) policies. Tom's rebuttal appears to be that Bush invaded Iraq and Obama did not. I'm sure Tom knows that the issue is more complex than that, but if we are going to keep it at that level of first-cut analysis, what about this table?
I am sure there are items that could go into the emptier cells, just as I am sure we could easily find more examples to reinforce the pattern displayed above. My point, which others besides Tom missed, is that it is possible to acknowledge instances where Obama has succeeded without simultaneously undermining the case for a Republican alternative.
Next, he objects to my observation that containing Iran would be a daunting challenge and that sometimes opponents of the military option are cavalier about the difficulties. His rebuttal appears to be that containing Iran would not be harder than containing Stalin's Russia.
The pedant in me -- and every professor has a little pedant inside yearning to seize the microphone -- is tempted to point out that this is a textbook example of sloppy analogizing.
But setting pedantry aside, let me make three quick points.
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Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran's growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of Iran's openness to inspections and negotiations. Pessimists can point to Tehran's blustering defiance, continued enrichment activities, dispersal and hardening of nuclear sites, endurance of tremendous economic hardship (and even willingness to self-inflict further hardship by cutting off petroleum exports to fragile European economies), activation of its global terror networks, continued ambivalence from Russia and China, and Israel's heightened anxieties.
Both camps also invoke history to support their judgments. Yet just how history can actually guide U.S. policy towards Iran is less clear. Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg have a very insightful article addressing this question, and their answer is as true as it is unsettling: history can't help as much as we might hope, at least in the sense of offering prescriptive "lessons." Describing the tendency of policy-makers to cherry-pick historical analogies in support of pre-existing positions, Gavin and Steinberg show how the misuse of history can distort more than enlighten. Yet they also explain that the fact that the "lessons" of history do not produce a clear answer on the "to bomb or not to bomb" question does not mean that history has no insight to offer. Rather, history reminds us that plans and predictions are frequently confounded, that actions taken -- or not taken -- almost always have second, third, and fourth order effects, and that the consequences of such choices are often not known until decades after. Just as history's guidance may be uncertain, history's verdicts can be unforgiving.
Along with the Gavin and Steinberg article, Peter Feaver's post below discusses another frustrating facet of the prevailing Iran debate: the tendency of advocates on all sides to maximize their optimistic assumptions while minimizing the risks and uncertainties of their preferred position. As intellectual critiques, the points made by Gavin, Steinberg, and Feaver are serious and well-taken. Moreover, neither article represents a case of armchair quarterbacking. Each author knows that policy choices will need to be made amidst these uncertainties, with the attendant trade-offs and risks and potentially grave consequences.
To indulge in some unseemly disciplinary chauvinism, one thing that history can tell us is how relatively unique the Iran situation is, with no clear historical precedent or analogy. This contrasts with the limited predictive value of political science modeling that substitutes parsimony for complexity. For example, this article runs a quantitative analysis of the previous behavior of states that acquire nuclear weapons, and essentially concludes that nuclear states don't show a greater propensity for international mischief and disputes. Unfortunately the model treats all nuclear states as the same monolithic actors, and ignores other complicating factors such as changes in the international system, nuclear safeguards, ties to non-state actors such as terrorist groups, and especially regime type.
In contrast, history can tell us just how unprecedented the current Iran situation is: a potentially nuclear-armed state that combines support for terrorism, existential threats to neighboring states, an apocalyptic religious ideology, substantial energy reserves, and ambitions for regional hegemony. Yet history also reveals that the current international campaign to pressure Iran may also be unprecedented: extremely tight economic sanctions imposed by the world's two largest economies (the US and EU), escalating defense counter-measures by most regional powers, a vigorous sabotage and covert action campaign, and a brittle regime desperately afraid of further mass protests by its own citizens. Finally, history shows that our plans, assumptions, and actions rarely turn out as we hope, and so whatever course of action the Obama Administration takes -- whether attack or not -- robust contingency plans will need to be in place to deal with the unexpected.
Finally, as Gavin and Steinberg describe, there remains a pressing need and opportunity for more rigorous training across disciplines on how historical consciousness can be brought to bear on strategy and statecraft. To that end (shameless plug alert!), here at the University of Texas-Austin we're putting together a program to do just that. Aspiring grad students take note: If great college football, delicious BBQ, and studying history and security policy appeal to you, then keep us in mind.
Meanwhile, as history continues to unfold, its wisdom remains available to policy-makers -- if they listen and ask of it the right questions.
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It is almost banal to observe that the Iranian nuclear challenge is a hard policy problem. Back in the day, even during some dark periods on Iraq, Bush insiders tended to view the Iranian nuclear file as the more vexing problem. I remember vividly President Bush authorizing a fresh zero-based look at our Iranian policy in late 2005 even while the White House's public posture was focused on the Iraq problem. Bush's term ended with a sense of greater progress on Iraq than on Iran. And, measured differently, I suspect Obama's national security team would likewise believe they have accomplished a greater proportion of their objectives regarding Iraq than Iran. It is just that thorny a problem.
Which is why I do not fully understand the arguments of the vocal and energetic anti-war faction. Perhaps I am reading the critics the wrong way, but it seems like they make the Iranian challenge an easier policy problem than it really is by arguing that all of the relevant considerations point in the the same direction. Thus, the use of force is a bad option, they say, because the costs of attacking Iran are high:
So far, these are all logically plausible, reinforcing, and perhaps even co-related, points. Experts can debate them, but where I have a problem is the next phase of the argument, where they argue that the costs of not attacking Iran are low:
Again, it is logically possible for (almost) all of these to also be true at the same time. But it is not as plausible, which may be why it is rarely people with actual responsibility for policy making arguments like this. In the real world familiar to policymakers, the choices often involve unpalatable lose-lose options, especially on issues like the Iran nuclear case that have commanded decades of attention. The further one moves away from actual responsibility for the consequences of decisions, I suppose the easier it is to make the call. (For a persuasive take on a related policymaking conundrum -- the interconnectedness of policy choices -- see Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg's simultaneous defense of "muddling through" and appeal for more analytical rigor here.)
Put another way, why do people who say military action to destroy the Iranian nuclear program is too hard also insist that it will be easy to contain Iran? Why can't they acknowledge that it would be quite a daunting challenge to contain Iran? This would not preclude them from making the tough call in favor of containment over preventive strikes, though it might undermine the dogmatism of the argument.
Political psychologists would point to that as the reason: The tendency in hard choices for individuals to bolster, seeking and seeing ever more reinforcing arguments for the choice they have adopted. It is something like a confirmation bias and it is very hard to resist. And I do not think it is a problem only affecting one side in the debate. It is not too hard to find examples of advocates of a military option doing much the same thing (air strikes will be easy; Iranian retaliation will be manageable; containing Iran will be impossible; etc.).
The analysts I find most compelling, especially when dealing with hard problems that have bedeviled the policy community for a long time, are those who concede that not all of the logic and evidence stacks up on their side of the argument. The Iran debate needs more analysts like that.
In some cases, the same critics who pride themselves in their capacity to spot such cognitive pathologies when policymakers commit them seem to be the ones the most afflicted now. Perhaps this a function of the Iraq experience. Perhaps this what the Iraq syndrome looks like.
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How to explain the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government's continuing killing spree against its own people? What strategic interest or moral imperative dominates their thinking?
Officially, Russia and China claim to be preventing the international community from doing another Libya; they are insisting on patience and "balance." The U.S., UK, France, the rest of the Security Council and pretty much the rest of the world, including the Arab League, beg to differ. Those speaking out the most forcefully don't buy what they consider excuse making for a bloody dictator.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice finds no ethical stance that can justify it, calling the vetoes "disgusting" and "shameful" and warning that the blame for the future deaths of Syrian civilians is on Russia and China. Amb. Rice does not comment on what strategic interests the vetoing states might be pursuing, though we can certainly speculate.
For Russia, Syria's dictatorship is its last client left standing in the Middle East, both political and economic since Syria provides a warm seaport and buys Russian weaponry. To watch it fall means ceding the field largely to the U.S. and the EU, and losing revenue. The stakes are indeed high for Russia. For China, the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest -- apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can -- according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are. (That China seems to contradict itself when it comes to Filipino, Vietnamese, or Japanese territorial interests requires a little semantic gymnastics.)
But let's look at this matter from thirty thousand feet. This latest turn in the Syrian tragedy reminds one of Talleyrand's famous comment applied to Napoleon's judicial murder of a noble: "[I]t was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." That is, the stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU. When the West and the Arab League are on the same page, and most of the second and third ranking powers and beyond are with them, any state taking Bashar al-Assad's side is hard-pressed to stake a claim for world leadership. Syria's blatant violation of the norms of the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights is patently obvious, as was the late Muammar Qaddafi's. For Russia and China to fail to recognize that and join the rest of the world in condemning it and seeking an end to these violations is in some ways worse: We expect tyrants like al-Assad to do what he is doing, but since the democracy revolutions and the Arab Spring, we rightly expect a different reaction from members of the Security Council entrusted with the only international organizational authority to do something about it.
No one expects Russia to lightly watch an ally go down, or for China to acquiesce in what it considers the violation of the most important international relations principle. Neither country wants to see further precedents being set of the average citizen rising up to challenge the established power. But I'd use their own words against them, the words they used in announcing their veto regarding the need in the resolution for "balance." There was a certain logic to calls for "balance" during the Cold War no matter how clanging it sounded. Much of international relations was a zero-sum game. But the Cold War is over. The publics of the Middle East are all in various stages of uprising and rebellion against centuries of tyranny, and they are aided by technology and social media in a way that means they will not be deterred short of death. That is a fact. Therefore, to oppose them and call for "balance" or "restraint" is to side with those who would without compunction kill as many of their citizens as they have to in order to stay in power; we're talking genocide now as a matter of course and endless instability. The democracy genie is out of the bottle.
So now the logic of "balance" is moot; urging acceptance of the democracy-crushing status quo is a spent force. International prestige and legitimate claims to world leadership now rest on those who accept that history has indeed ended in this sense: People want the dignity of self-government and they have the technological means to perpetually bring once unshakeable dictators to the nightmare scenario. Would-be world leaders should choose the right side now. After all, both ethics and logic point the way clearly now. That's the real "reset" that is needed, and it is good to see the Obama administration's diplomats at the UN representing it.
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Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won't be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party's record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion's share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" -- and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team's rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor -- it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor's watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama's Asia strategy -- the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results -- were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton's watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama's successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama's national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won't cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.
But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.
This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.
The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.
This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.
Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
One of the frustrating things about watching news coverage of Afghanistan is the regularity with which old ideas or initiatives are breathlessly reported as new. The premier example is Taliban reconciliation.
President Hamid Karzai first called for the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government after his election -- in 2004. The Bush administration developed a reconciliation policy around the same time frame, establishing as redlines that the Taliban must renounce violence, sever ties to al-Qaida, and accept the Afghan constitution -- the same redlines the Obama administration is adhering to, according to all the press reporting on it. We've been pursuing a negotiated end to political violence in Afghanistan for eight years. As Mitchell Reiss rightly points out, we were even talking with the Taliban during the Clinton administration.
Nonetheless, the idea pops up every 18 months or so as the new silver bullet that promises to end our involvement in the region on the cheap. And when it does, it reopens a tired debate between, on the one hand, those who reject all negotiations as a morally-troubling compromise with evil, and, on the other, those eager to accept any face-saving deal that allows a decent interval between our withdrawal and the outbreak of civil war.
Allow me to imitate President Obama here and reject the false choice between two straw men. Both sides are wrong. Negotiations are a useful tool and probably the best means to end the war. It would be more satisfying to have a Taliban surrender ceremony and a Kandahar War Crimes Tribunal. I would love to see a president or a general pound his fist on the table and bellow "Taliban delenda est!" but that seems unlikely.
On the other hand, talks are not an abandonment of our war aims or our Afghan allies. Talking with the Taliban does not lessen our commitment to defeating the Taliban as a military force. Talking is not an alternative to defeating the Taliban's military capability, but a key weapon with which to do so. Talks are a weapon in the arsenal of counterinsurgency. Even if we fail to secure an immediate ceasefire, by talking with our enemies,* we sow discord between hardliners and moderates, encourage defections, plant disinformation, gauge their morale, and force them to ask what their true war aims are (force footsoldiers to ask what they are risking their lives for). These can all have useful battlefield effects.
What matters is not whether or not we talk with the Taliban, but what kind of agreement emerges at the end of talks. This seems to be where the Obama administration is on shaky ground. Obama and his team seem eager, too eager, to get any agreement from the Taliban on a set timetable. But it should be the content of an agreement, and its enforcement mechanisms, not its timing, that matters the most. Done right, an agreement could be the best and most cost effective opportunity to secure our interests in South Asia, including denying safe haven to al-Qaida, reversing the momentum of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, and denying Iran a proxy in Kabul. Done wrong, a settlement could be the excuse the U.S. invokes to justify abandoning the region as its collapses around us.
All this begs the question: if we've been trying to reconcile with the Taliban for eight years, why haven't we succeeded yet? The answer is because until 2010-2011, we were losing the war. The Taliban had no incentive to sit down at the negotiating table because they believed, with good reason, that they stood to gain more by fighting than by talking.
The fact that they are now openly talking about negotiations with the United States and the Afghan government, even seeking to open a political office in Qatar, is an indicator that the increased military pressure of the last two years is working. As DoD announced in October, violence actually decreased in 2011 for the first time in at least five years. The Taliban no longer believe they're winning. At least some of the Taliban leadership seem to believe they have more to gain from talking than fighting. Our military progress has started to change their cost-benefit calculation. This a heartening sign that, at long last, our tactical military successes are contributing to strategic progress.
That explains why negotiations are not a silver bullet. They only work when the enemy feels talks are the only alternative to defeat. Talks must be matched with ruthless, withering firepower. Talks are not cheap, and they are not easy. To get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire that protects our interests in the region, we have to keep up the military pressure for some time yet. The deadline for withdrawal directly harms this goal. It is abundantly clear that the deadline is the greatest strategic threat we face in Afghanistan and one of Obama's worst foreign policy blunders.
*Despite the vice president's vast expertise in foreign policy and military affairs, I humbly disagree with his characterization of the Taliban. People who regularly seek to kill American soldiers in combat are our "enemies."
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
The LA Times is carrying an interesting and important story about the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the war in Afghanistan. The NIE is classified, but has been briefed to Congress (Congressional sources seem to have formed the basis for the article). The article states that the intelligence community has concluded that while the military has made significant gains against the Taliban, the war has ground to a stalemate. It cites three causes for the stalemate: (1) pervasive corruption and incompetence by the Afghan government; (2) sanctuary for Taliban in Pakistan; and (3) reductions in U.S. forces.
The commentariat will have a feeding frenzy on the Director of Central Intelligence supporting a set of conclusions he had objected to last year when he was commander of the war effort in Afghanistan. But Dave Petraeus' reaction is the least interesting part of this story.
If the LA Times is accurate (and they have the best reporting on the middle east of any American newspaper), the NIE is going to be very damaging to the war effort. It also sounds about right in its assessment: we are militarily winning the war, but badly hindered by the shoddy Afghan government and the willingness of Pakistan to assist the Taliban. The NIE itself is quoted to question the viability of the Karzai government, even before the U.S. withdraws its troops.
The NIE evidently earned a formal protest from the entire leadership fighting the war, including General Mattis, the CENTCOM commander (responsible for all the Middle East and South Asia); Admiral Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (it is a NATO mission); General Allen, the Afghan war commander; and Ambassador Crocker, the Ambassador in Afghanistan. Among their reported objections are that the NIE bases its analysis on the assumption that all U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan in 2014; the Afghan war team insist that decision has not been made.
I hope they're right. The central problem with President Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan has always been his deadline. The Taliban claim that we have the watches, but they have the time. And the President has already compromised our war effort(s) by setting deadlines for troop withdrawals that are unconnected to the end states his strategy seeks to achieve.
Our exit strategy for Afghanistan is to build an Afghan government, including security forces, that can do the work Americans are fighting and dying to succeed at now. That's both sensible and achievable, the only way to make our gains more than transitory. But nothing in the Administration's choices about either Iraq or Afghanistan suggests they will allow facts on the ground to determine the pace of their drawdown.
The Obama Administration scored a lot of cheap points against their predecessor by hailing the arrival of "smart power" -- using political, military, and economic means in seamless orchestration. If reports of the NIE are accurate, it would be a terrible condemnation of the Administration's efforts. For only the American military has proven able to achieve any effect in the complex task of nation building in Afghanistan, and it has done so without either the political or diplomatic support necessary to make their achievements durable.
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Bashar al-Assad is desperate. I say this because all of the problems he faces related to the Syrian uprising have forced him to show up in public for only the fourth time since his troubles began. He "surprised" a pro-government rally on Wednesday, family in tow (who had been rumored to have left the country), defiantly defending his actions and insisting again that he faces an externally-inspired and led conspiracy. He took the bold step of mocking and attacking the Arab League's observer mission to end his government's slaughter of civilians, after ignoring their admonishments he make good on his pledges to reform the government. These are not the actions of a confident dictator who is assured of suppressing a revolt. These are the actions of an ophthalmologist-turned-dictator who can't maintain his regime's stability the way his father could.
Granted, Bashar does not have his father's advantages: Hafez al-Assad readily and ruthlessly killed tens of thousands of his own people in a world with no interference from the international community, no Arab Spring and no fresh examples of fallen Arab dictators. Bashar has seen a gurney-bound Mubarak in the dock and a bleeding Gaddafi hauled out of a culvert and summarily shot to death. While Hafez knew a world where Arab dictators die of stomach cancer or are ousted by coups, Bashar knows one where they are overthrown by chaotic and protracted popular movements sometimes led by thousands of armed civilians and then put on trial or assassinated.
He now faces an uprising that has lasted months and is being led by mutinous soldiers with weapons and thousands of angry citizens who have built up 40 years of hate and desire for revenge against a regime formed by a religious minority. His neighbors no longer acquiesce in the regime's cruelty, and the once complacent Arab League has been moved because of the Arab Spring to act for the good of Arabs instead of simply for Arab leaders.
But he has advantages, beleaguered though he is. The U.S. is not interested in another intervention as in Libya, and Russia and China are unwilling to allow the UN Security Council to impose serious sanctions. (But the Russian assistance is not as powerful as his dad could count on: recently a Russian ship laden with arms was caught off Cyprus and meekly changed course away from its intended delivery port in Syria.)
But he has one other important advantage: the incompetence and fecklessness of the Arab League. As noted above, the League has finally risen to the challenge before it to demonstrate that Arab leaders understand that the world is changing and their people are increasingly less willing to abide tyranny. That is a good thing, no matter their true motivation for this new sensitivity to basic human rights. Yet it cannot seem to pull off an observer mission that should be able to accomplish its goals. Instead of stating those goals clearly -- interpose themselves between the Syrian government and civilians to stop the killing and bring pressure on al-Assad to enact reforms -- and maintaining an orderly and firm public presence, the mission is falling apart, bickering, and suffering defections. Some observers are quitting Syria altogehter, understandably because they are being targeted by the pro-government forces -- a French reporter has even been killed; others are leaving because they are disillusioned by their failure to achieve anything but derision. It doesn't help that a Sudanese general heads the observer mission; leave it to autocrats to be so ham-handed.
So it appears that while al-Assad is emboldened and determined to wipe out the revolution and stay in power as his dad would have done, even stepping up the killings as his many domestic and international opponents are roused to stop him, that might all be the last ditch effort of a desperate dictator. His counselors have no interest in compromise even if he perceives one. They lose everything as privileged elites based on an armed religious minority if they blink. So perhaps his strategy now is simply to follow the age-old approach of "desperate times call for desperate measures:" put on the bravest of fronts and attack the rebels, attack the neighbors and attack the international community. Double down on the violence and the rhetoric.
Let's hope his targets smell his fear and respond in kind with all the measures available to vindicate the Arab Spring.
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
The recent news that the Taliban plans to open an office in Qatar and pursue negotiations with the United States has raised a number of important questions -- for the United States, for Afghanistan's future, for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and for the war on terror.
There are always risks in talking with any terrorist group, and the Taliban are no different in this respect. Most knowledgeable observers believe that the Afghan security forces, individually or with the assistance of the U.S. and ISAF, will not be able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, at least anytime soon. This means that some type of negotiated solution is the best near-term bet to halt the fighting.
What is interesting is why the Taliban has agreed to a formal diplomatic process now. In a sense, this opening is not really a new development. The United States has been talking to, and with, the Taliban since the Clinton administration, when the U.S. asked that it hand over Osama bin Laden. What is new is that this marks the first time that a formal diplomatic process is being established to broker an end to the conflict.
No one can be sure as to the Taliban's motivations, which could range from general war fatigue, to wanting a halt to U.S. Predator strikes and night raids, to wanting the Obama administration transfer some of its high-ranking members from Guantanamo to Qatar. It is also possible that the latest diplomatic moves could merely reflect the desire of only one faction of the Taliban to explore a peace deal; every insurgency or terrorist group appears from the outside to be more coherent and unified than they are in reality.
Who, precisely, represents the "Taliban" in these talks is not a trivial matter. In 2010, the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government pursued talks (and transferred funds) to an individual purporting to be Mullah Omar's number 2. In reality, he was a Pakistani convenience store owner with a beard.
The administration seems to have road-tested the credibility of the Taliban officials who will be sitting across the table in Doha, but questions remain in at least three areas. The United States still needs to determine: (1) whether the Taliban officials sitting across the negotiating table represent themselves, a small faction, or a broader constituency, (2) whether they have the authority to impose any agreement on the mujahedeen in the field, and (3) whether they have a genuine interest in a permanent halt to the conflict on terms that are agreeable to the United States and its Afghan partner (e.g., renouncing ties to al Qaeda, laying down their weapons and supporting the Afghan constitution).
Of course, talking to the Taliban is not cost-free. Harm may be done to the relationship between Washington and Kabul. After the Taliban killed the chief Afghan negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last September, President Hamid Karzai stated that he would no longer negotiate. Karzai subsequently opposed the idea of talks when it was initially floated, recalling the Afghan ambassador from Qatar, and he did not immediately support the talks when they were formally announced last week, suggesting that he still has grave reservations and is being dragged reluctantly by the Obama administration into this process.
Previously, both Washington and Kabul had agreed that any peace process would have to be "Afghan-led." Clearly, that has not happened and represents a significant conceptual difference between the U.S. and its key ally before the talks have even started. This will complicate the U.S. and Afghanistan coordinating future negotiating positions. And, at some point down the road, Kabul is going to have to take the lead and "own" this process if it stands a chance of success.
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The Persian new year falls on the vernal equinox, but the government of Iran set off some fireworks to start the Julian year: announcing it had manufactured a nuclear fuel rod, test-firing three new missiles, threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, and warning the U.S. not to return the Fifth Fleet's aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
The Obama Administration has got the response -- a very difficult balancing act -- almost exactly right: not giving Iran the lift of a high-level political statement, instead quietly proceeding on sanctions, letting the economic arguments speak for themselves, reassuring allies in the region, and having our military refute Iran's claims with our obvious superiority and the unambiguous statement that "interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
Preserving freedom of navigation through the Straits would play to our military's strengths and showcase the increased political resolve and military capabilities of Gulf allies in recent years. The Obama administration has advanced cooperation with friendly governments in the region, Iran's own truculence producing closer involvement with the U.S.
I agree with Michael Singh that assertive military operations are a valuable deterrent and should be pursued, although it looks to me as though we've been doing that pretty well for the past few years: while our military leadership has mostly played down the likelihood of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, they have pushed back on Iranian maritime harassment, conducted operations near Iran's shoreline, arming and exercising with regional allies, and (as the recent drone capture by Iran demonstrates), extending surveillance and intelligence operations into Iranian territory.
One of the few missteps so far is the White House attempting to forestall Congressional furthering of the very means the administration has advocated for in limiting Iran's choices. Sanctions have been biting since the United Arab Emirates began compliance last year, and are set to tighten further with Congress' action to extend prohibitions to Iran's central bank. President Obama signing the legislation over the weekend may well have precipitated this round of bellicose posturing: Iran's currency promptly lost 12% of its value (continuing a plunge of 50 percent from a year ago).
Another potential wrinkle in the strategy is Israel's isolation. An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is more likely due to the friction between the Obama and Netanyhu governments; in making settlements the centerpiece of its peace proposals, Obama made cooperation between Israel and others more difficult and promises from us less reassuring. Secretary Panetta's comments don't help, either.
But still, President Obama has come a long way since the stolen elections of 2009, when he put potential relations with Ahmadinejad's government ahead of condemning the government's repression. The domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime faces a new challenge because reformists are refusing to participate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections, stripping away even the pretense of representative government.
Ayatollah Khameni and his wayward protege President Ahmadinejad claim that Iran is the inspiration of the Arab Spring. And they're right -- just not in the way they mean. The uprising of Iranians against their government rigging 2009's election was the first flowering of Spring, the first middle eastern populace brave enough to stand up to tyranny. Their demands for political rights were crushed by a government that has more in common with despots overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen than with the people overthrowing them.
As the new year dawns, we should continue to tighten the screws on this Iranian government and wish the Iranian people well in ending the tyranny that has repressed and impoverished them. We will have less to fear from a democratic Iran, even if it continues its nuclear programs, than we will Khameni's repressive Iran.
EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AFP/Getty Images
The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously -- more seriously -- than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria's dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab League held him to account, decrying his continuing aggression. At Saturday's League meeting, they formally sanctioned Syria's leader for continued violence against the Syrian people and not honoring his promises of political dialogue and release of political prisoners. They called for a meeting of Syrian dissidents and urged consensus on them to more effectively pressure Assad. The Arab League set a clock ticking for Assad to comply; if he does not within four days, further political and economic sanctions will go into effect.
The only previous time the Arab League has been willing to call out a member government was after the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi as he closed in on Benghazi. Qaddafi was a special case, having attempted to assassinate heads of other Arab governments. And the Arab League was following a U.N. lead; in taking action on Syria, the Arab League has led where Russia and China prevent condemnation at the United Nations.
These actions constitute an admirable strategy of escalating and increasingly public pressure by regional governments. The vote in the twenty-two member Arab League was 18 condemnations of Syria (only Yemen and Lebanon voted to shield Syria; Iraq abstained). Technically, League rules require unanimity. Yet, as NATO did during the Kosovo war, the Arab League found a way to express its will rather than let itself be hamstrung by technicalities.
The shame for Americans is that the Arab League, so long a regressive force in the politics of the region, has a better Syria policy than does the Obama administration. 3,500 Syrians have been killed by their government this year; during that time, our government has adjusted its position from considering Bashar al-Assad a reformer -- Secretary Hillary Clinton's memorable phrase -- to saying "he cannot deny his people's legitimate demands indefinitely."
The "Obama Doctrine," as the White House has termed its choices on Libya, gives to Russia and China a veto -- literally -- on U.S. support for freedom movements and human rights activists. This is disgraceful. Without a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the Obama administration will not consider significant support to the Syrians engaged in a fight to protect themselves from a despot.
Clinton outlined the rationale for treating the Syrian case different from the Obama Doctrine: "our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans' lives - including our fight against al Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy." One might ask the Secretary of State which of these interests would be in conflict with working to rein in the barbarism of an enemy of the United States who fosters terrorism and has killed 3,500 Syrians this year alone. Adding insult to injury, Clinton gave this explanation in a speech on promoting democracy.
Where the Arab League has been negotiating with Bashir al-Assad to curb his predations against the people of Syria, the Obama Administration fecklessly repeats that Assad must step down. And this from a President that insisted he would negotiate with anyone.
After a brave start by Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria, the State Department has recalled him because Syria is dangerous. Less so to an U.S. ambassador than to the people he was bearing witness for, though, and who now have no potent symbol of America's support for their cause.
Withdrawing our ambassador is, in fact, the sadly appropriate symbol of Obama administration policy toward Syria. They pretend engagement but are unwilling to run risks in support of freedom. Instead they pontificate piously from a safe distance while others undertake the difficult, honorable work of bringing despots to their knees.
How fortunate are the people of Syria that they have the governments of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League to stand up for freedom and universal human rights; what a pity the Obama administration will not.
President Obama's statement supporting the action of the Arab League says it all: "the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable."
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Like father, like son.
Two Syrian dictators, both named al-Assad, brutally attacked their own people. Both started their campaigns of violence in the central Syrian city of Hama. Both caused Syrian deaths. Both followed protests calling for reform and opportunity.
That's where the similarities end. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad's military killed at least 10,000 Syrians, according to conservative estimates. Neither Syria's neighbors, the United Nations, nor the world's democracies protested, barely uttering a sound in reaction to the state-sponsored violence. With its borders tightly controlled, foreign media denied access and Syrian state media complicit in the cover-up, the world was in the dark.
Fast forward almost 30 years. Bashar al-Assad, doing what dictators do, responded to calls for political freedoms with the indiscriminate force of his military. The United Nations estimates as many as 2,700 civilian deaths, although the violence continues. But, unlike his father, the younger Assad earned wide-spread condemnation from world leaders.
The French foreign minister denounced the "extreme violence." European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek bluntly demanded "no more killing, no more torture, no more arbitrary arrests." In the U.S., President Obama condemned the "outrageous use of violence," and Secretary of State Clinton urged a ban on Syrian oil and gas.
To be sure, numerous factors contribute to the difference in international reaction, but one of the most critical is social media. Unlike their counterparts 30 years ago, today's Syrian reformers have new media technologies that enable them to organize and tell the outside world.
The world learned of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities not from international media but first-hand accounts relayed in real time. The first glimpse was through a camera phone photo that rapidly spread on the Internet last March followed by amateur video on Facebook and YouTube.
For Assad and his kindred autocrats, social media threatens their iron-clad control over information, ideas and opinion. Accustomed to disseminating what they want, when they want through state organs, social media equalizes the power to inform, persuade and mobilize. It's power to the people in a modern setting.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
On Sept. 22, I testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the abuse of human rights in Iran and Syria. The wide-scale human rights abuses we are witnessing in these countries are atrocious, but they are certainly not new. The abuses perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad's Syria and Ali Khamenei's Iran stretch back for years and are a key element in those regimes' system of authoritarian control over their people. The Iranian and Syrian regimes have, in an effort to establish and maintain this control, cultivated illusions of democracy, prosperity, and stability which are belied by the underlying realities of these countries. The great achievement of both the Iranian and Syrian opposition is to have shattered these illusions, which neither regime will easily be able to reconstruct. Looking ahead, the U.S. should do all it can to assist opposition activists in both Iran and Syria to break the control exerted by their regimes. Whether in Iran or in Syria, preventing human rights abuses necessarily means supporting democracy.
You can read my entire written testimony here.
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Amidst the many uncertainties about Libya's future post-Qaddafi, at least two things can be said. First, the Middle East and the world will be better off with the Qaddafi regime out of power. And second, virtually everyone was wrong in some way and at some point about the Libya operation. This includes the early naysayers who warned that Qaddafi would not be defeated, or that the war would result in a stalemate and divided Libya, or would be a folly of prohibitive costs. Yet also wrong were President Barack Obama's promises that the war would take "weeks, not months," or that it was merely a limited humanitarian intervention to protect civilians and not a regime change operation, or that it was not even a "war" at all.
Part of the problem besetting the early Libya debates, as I wrote earlier in this article for the German Marshall Fund, came from a facile use of history in which various analogies -- whether Rwanda and Bosnia, or Iraq and Somalia -- were wielded as polemics in dire warnings that Libya would be the "next [fill in the blank]." In fact, Libya was none of those, but rather its own unique circumstance that soon enough will become an analogy of its own for future foreign policy debates.
This in turn points to the problem with some of the early, breathless pronouncements in the wake of Qaddafi's defeat that Libya amounts to a "new way to wage war" or a vindication of "leading from behind." As my Foreign Policy colleagues such as Dan Drezner, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake have pointed out from various angles, this amounts to sound-bite triumphalism and overlooks the unique aspects of the Libya operation as well the remaining hard tasks.
The Obama administration still deserves commendation for the role it played in helping topple Qaddafi. Even if dilatory, President Obama made the right call in deciding to intervene, and his team showed fortitude in seeing the operation through to the Qaddafi regime's demise, while managing the complexities of coalition warfare. The administration knows well the challenges that lie ahead in finishing the war, winning the peace, and helping reconstruct a stable and free Libya.
Three challenges in particular stand out:
1. NATO's inadequacies. While the operation eventually succeeded, it does not speak well of NATO's political and operational health. NATO's largest member state not named "America" (Germany), didn't even participate, and the leading members who did -- France and Britain -- found themselves exhausting their munitions and stretching their militaries thin in trying to topple a two-bit North African dictator whose own people were in open revolt. All while announcing even further reductions in their defense budgets. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker points out, the operation should prompt hard introspection more than champagne toasts at NATO headquarters.
2. Post-conflict reconstruction. Countless gallons of pundit ink have already been spilled recounting the "lessons" of recent and ongoing episodes such as Iraq and Afghanistan for post-conflict reconstruction. No doubt the Obama administration has taken these into account, and one silver lining to the prolonged Libya conflict may have been the additional time to do post-conflict planning, which I trust the administration has availed itself of. More interesting is the larger strategic question, which is: Does the United States have a national interest in helping build a stable, peaceful, and free Libya? As my Strauss Center colleague Jeremi Suri describes in his excellent new book on the history of American nation-building interventions, the United States has long been committed to maintaining an international system comprised of functioning nation-states. The competence and consequences of our various interventions form a mixed record, but the fact remains that promoting a stable international order of nation-states is a core American interest. Libya offers an opportunity to put the lessons of past efforts into practice.
3. A new regional strategy. Libya's significance lies not only in the removal of a vile dictator and the prospects of a better future for the Libyan people, but also for its regional ramifications, especially the uncertain trajectory of the Arab Spring. A Qaddafi victory would almost certainly have forestalled the Arab Spring; whether a post-Qaddafi Libya heralds enduring region-wide consequences is hopeful but not foreordained. And as I have written previously, the administration still faces challenging questions in its efforts to develop a new American strategy for the region. Such as: What type of regional order will best constrain Iran's hegemonic intentions? How can a free Syria be created, and play a positive regional role? What place will the strategic-yet-neglected Iraq have in the emerging Middle East? How can Saudi Arabia be encouraged to reform while remaining a key American partner? How can the regional tumult induce Turkey to re-align itself with American interests? Will the emerging assertiveness by Gulf states such as Qatar and UAE be channeled in positive directions?
The Arab Spring further hastened the erosion of the old regional order; it will take shrewd, principled, and creative diplomacy to help craft a new one.
Like my colleague Peter Feaver, I found Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes' interview with FP's Josh Rogin troubling. I share Peter's concern that the Obama Administration is early to the party of claiming credit and is disrespectful to the commitments and sacrifices our allies have made in other wars. But even beyond the unseemliness of claiming credit where others have fought and died, the Obama Administration's strategy of regime change neither encourages regime change nor addresses the hard cases where American national interests are threatened.
It is absolutely true that if local forces rebel and receive sufficient external support, they can change their countries, and that change has the greatest domestic legitimacy and can be achieved at a very low price to the United States. But it also means that we will not actually change regimes; we will advocate insurgencies against governments and assist at the margins. That is a legitimate strategy. It is not, however, one in which we should be claiming credit for the outcome. We have been marginal players in Libya, and our efforts do not merit the accolades the Administration is giving itself.
President Barack Obama's model of regime change is letting others do the work while we take credit for what they achieve. It's a cost-effective way to shape the international order, provided that local forces and other countries are willing to undertake the hard work. But do we think the experience Britain and France have had with the United States in Libya operations is likely to inspire them to the forefront of other regime changes? Do we think rebel forces in Syria or North Korea believe this model of regime change assists their cause? It is a strategy that depends fundamentally on others to create change, and accepts that we will not force a change of government -- no matter how evil or threatening to our interests that government is -- unless the conditions of domestic insurgency and multinational effort are in place.
Rhodes' approach remains innocent of consideration that it solves the easy problems, not the hard ones. Would Afghanistan have overthrown the Taliban or Iraqis overthrown Saddam Hussein on that model? Would the "growing international chorus of condemnation" that Secretary Clinton applauds for getting us "where we need to be" on Syria coalesce to undertake missions that demanding? In fact, we know the answer: it is not changing the regime in Syria, because that's too hard.
Which is to say that the Obama Administration's regime change strategy is actually not comparable to the Bush Administration's, because it isn't dealing with the hard cases. Before they can claim the laurel of a superior approach, the Obama Administration ought to have to answer how they would have dealt with Saddam Hussein remaining in violation of 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, whose behavior toward U.N. weapons inspectors strongly suggested progress on nuclear weapons, who not only had chemical weapons and had used them on an enemy in war but had also used them on its own population, and all in the frightening aftermath of attacks on the United States. Nor is it clear from Ben Rhodes' self-congratulatory complacency how they would have dealt with the government of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there wasn't a rebel force or the capacity in other countries to undertake the necessary military operations.
The Obama Administration's regime change strategy suggests highly unsatisfactory outcomes for cases in which the United States has actual national security interests in the conflict.
A reporter called me up with the question of the hour: does the apparent fall of the Qaddafi regime vindicate President Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy? The administration's most ardent boosters are quick to answer in the affirmative, but there are five reasons why the early spin may not last.
1. The most recent progress happened because NATO shifted course and stepped up military operations, especially American military operations, as critics had been calling for. As the New York Times spells out, when the administration finally took the critiques on board and stepped up U.S. operations, the stalemate tilted in favor of the rebels. The previous strategy of doing just a bit less than what was needed was not working and contributed to months of paralysis.
2. The operation took significantly longer than the administration expected, in part because a late entry and other operational choices hobbled early efforts. If the international coalition had joined the rebel cause a week earlier than they did (when rebel forces were initially pressing Tripoli), the Qaddafi regime might have collapsed within days or weeks rather than holding on for months. The late entry, and the contradictory declaratory posture (protecting the citizens, but not supporting the rebels; conducting military operations but promising no ground involvement, etc.) likely limited the impact of the kinetic operations.
3. Because this operation has dragged on, the collapse of the Qaddafi regime is happening as the international coalition is itself running out of steam. It appears that the clock has run out on Qaddafi before it ran out on NATO, but only just barely. The NATO coalition was fraying dramatically, and France and Britain, the two staunchest players, seem about at the end of their Libyan rope. What this means is that there is far less spare international capacity to deal with any problems that emerge in Libya than there would have been if we had reached this culmination point months ago, which is when the administration evidently expected it to be reached.
4. The strategic rationale by which Obama justified the Libya mission runs counter to the operational commitments he has made for the next phase. Obama invoked the "responsibility to protect" principle as the rationale for committing U.S. military forces and prestige to the Libya operation: if we had not acted, there would have been a bloodbath. He has consistently argued, however, that it is the responsibility of the Libyans to provide all of the necessary security to prevent a bloodbath after the fall of Qhaddafy. If the international community, and the United States in particular, had a responsibility to act in March to forestall a possible bloodbath that was not precipitated by U.S. action, why does Obama believe that the United States will have no responsibility to act in August or September if a bloodbath arises out of a power vacuum that our military action catalyzed? Which brings me to....
5. The real test of Obama's Libya operation will be how events play out after Qaddafi is gone. If post-Qaddafi Libya quickly transitions to a stable, representative political order, then the messiness of the last five months will be forgiven and forgotten. If the Obama team's planning for post-Qaddafi Libya is up to the task, that will go a long way to vindicating their approach. But as the George W. Bush administration ruefully knows, as hard as it is to topple a dictator, the really hard part is what comes after.
I understand the administration's desire to spike the ball. It has been an exceptionally difficult August and so any good news anywhere is a reason to celebrate. But I think the administration would be well-advised to mute any celebrations until we see how the next phase plays out.
When the story of the Arab Spring is written in Arabic, it is unlikely to reflect well on the United States. In his speech about the Middle East on May 19, U.S. President Barack Obama attempted, and rightly so, to place his administration squarely on the side of pro-democracy activists. As seen from the region, however, U.S. actions are hard to square with the message of May 19; instead, the hallmarks of U.S. policy have been hedging and hesitation.
However vociferously we might protest, people in the Middle East are apt to ascribe motives to U.S. policy which differ sharply from those we profess. Seeking to understand our readiness to intervene in Libya and reluctance to do so in Syria, many in the region will assume that the difference is driven by designs on the former's oil resources. Eyeing the withdrawal of U.S. support in February of longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, some accuse us of naively paving the way for an Islamist takeover, others of privately seeking renewed military rule under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. When people in the region hear us speak of supporting democracy, they look askance upon the tense relationship we have with democratic Turkey versus the coziness of U.S.-Saudi relations.
It is right that U.S. officials push back on cynical readings of U.S. actions in the region; while the United States bases its policies on national interests like any other country, we -- regardless of the administration -- more often than not try genuinely to do so with transparency and with respect for our values. It is also right that U.S. officials make the case that each of the turbulent situations we face in the Middle East is different from the others, and demands therefore a different response.
That said, the line between nuance and vacillation is a fine one, and this is nowhere clearer than in Syria. The Obama Administration has not, despite repeated urging, called for Syrian President Assad to step down. The reason seems clear -- they worry that if they issue such a call and Assad does not, in fact, leave, it will be a further blow to U.S. power and prestige in the region. Every day that Assad remains in power, he would do so in open defiance of the United States.
This reasoning is logical, but flawed. The fact is that the concatenated statements of U.S. officials amount, in essence, to a call for Assad to step down. The statements made thus far -- whether that Assad has lost legitimacy, that Syria would be better off without him, or that the U.S. has no stake in his continued rule -- certainly give this impression. They are reinforced by the sanctions recently imposed by the Administration, which among other things target Assad personally. More than a distinct policy line, the statements and sanctions appear to constitute a tortured effort to indicate that Assad should go without ever actually saying so.
The problem with this "wink and nod" approach to calling for Assad's departure is that it leaves sufficient ambiguity to hamper American efforts. It feeds the Syrian regime's efforts to convince domestic constituencies who may be on the fence that things will one day return to business as usual. It results in a lack of clarity down Washington's bureaucratic chain -- which is a very long chain indeed -- as to what precisely the U.S. policy is in Syria, leading U.S. diplomatic and military officials on the ground around the world without precise guidance. And, perhaps most damagingly, it feeds into a narrative that the U.S. response to the Arab uprisings has been to hedge our bets and decide whom to support only when the ultimate outcome is already clear. At the end of the day, our failure to speak clearly provides Assad room for maneuver, able to claim on one hand that he is defying Washington, while on the other suggesting to foes in Syria and the region that Washington despite its rhetoric will once again need to deal with him.
Just as American words must be clear, they must be clearly supported by our actions. For this reason, the White House should now withdraw Amb. Robert Ford from Damascus. as a sign of its break with the Assad regime. Amb. Ford is a talented and, as he demonstrated in his visit to Hama, courageous. diplomat who has acquitted himself well in an extraordinarily difficult assignment. Though it seems unlikely that the Syrian regime would allow him to repeat his visit to Hama or other besieged cities, it is possible that if he were to remain in Damascus he could continue to play a useful role by speaking to the opposition and calling attention to their struggle.
Any such benefit, however, must be weighed against the cost of his remaining and the benefits of withdrawing him. The Obama Administration sent an ambassador to Syria (after the long absence of an American envoy there) with the express intention of engaging with the Assad regime. Nothing would more clearly signal a change in the engagement policy than withdrawing that ambassador, just as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others have done. The continued presence of a U.S. ambassador in Damascus, however, feeds suspicion that Washington remains open to engaging Assad, and gives cover to other countries who wish to continue doing so. Better than leaving Amb. Ford in place would be recalling him and, as the U.S. ambassador to Libya has been doing, tasking him to work with the Syrian opposition globally to marshal U.S. and international support for them. This would be better, too, than simply allowing his confirmation to die in the Senate, which would further fuel the sense that Washington is split on the issue of how to handle Syria.
Affecting the outcome in Syria will require a mix of international isolation, economic pressure, and the exacerbation of internal fissures. Within each pillar there are a number of steps -- the withdrawal of Western ambassadors, the formation of an international "contact group" to coordinate policy, the imposition of energy and other economic sanctions, for example -- which can be taken to add to the strong measures which the Obama Administration has already put in place. But the United States must start by ensuring that our own policy -- toward Syria and toward democracy in the Arab world broadly -- is unmistakable.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.